One of Auckland's top doctors is warning chronic junior doctor shortages could lead to major problems this winter in the city's hospitals.
Auckland District Health Board director of resident medical officer clinical training Steven Child said junior doctor shortages were continuing to significantly affect some services - and that winter would just make matters worse.
"We are seriously concerned regarding the upcoming winter workload which traditionally is when shortages reach their peak," said Dr Child. "Continued junior doctor shortages place high workloads on remaining RMOs with a constant background of clinical risk.
"My concern is that, as shortages continue, the risk and stress levels to the junior doctors themselves continues to go up. We continue to get them more tired. Therefore we have worsening recruitment problems. Therefore we have more shortages and the spiral goes downhill."
Resident Doctors Association general secretary Dr Deborah Powell said it was just a matter of time before an overworked junior doctor made a mistake that caused harm.
"If we don't have enough residents, then the workload does fall to the rest of the residents.
"And in winter, of course, we traditionally do get busier. And we get into the situation where we hope like hell that we don't make a mistake."
Dr Powell said this winter was likely be worse than other winters because, for the first time ever, there was a junior doctor shortage in November. Junior doctor numbers were usually at their highest in November following their graduation from medical school.
Adding to the problem was the fact that, this winter, the UK had moved to keep its junior doctors at home by introducing limits on their work hours.
And a "winter from hell" would just make the junior doctor shortage worse, she said.
A junior doctor contacted by the Herald on Sunday, who did not wish to be named, said current shortages meant there were fewer doctors in the relief pool to cover illness and annual leave.
Despite the increased workload, the health board did not increase team numbers during the winter months, he said.
Because of the increased load, some doctors were working between four and five hours overtime after a 12-hour shift, then going home to catch some sleep before coming back the next day. "If you have five or six patients backed up, you are expected to clear them before going home, but it is frowned on to claim that as overtime."
- HERALD ON SUNDAY